Dogs, the streets of Old Town and what inevitably happens when the twain meet: that's the subject ofthe latest neighborhood dispute facing the city fathers of Alexandria.
At issue is the Olde Towne School for Dogs, which a petition signed by 51 persons accuses of conducting "the major part of its business . . . on the public sidewalks." The petition calls the school a public nuisance, and the signers want the City Council to revoke its business license.
The obedience training school for dogs has been located at the corner of Oronoco and North St. Asaph streets, on the north edge of the Old Town area, for the past six years. Many know the school by its bus service, which picks up canine students in the morning and takes them home at the end of the day.
Owner Carlos Mejias, who has trained the dogs of diplomats and of several White House administrations, says he is sensitive to the excrement problem. "I lived in New York for 25 years and I saw what it did to the city. I was disgusted. Since we opened, I have been very conscious of that."
He maintains it is not the 11 dogs he trains daily that are fouling the neighborhood, but local dogs whose owners don't bother to pick up after them.
Said Clifford Rush, deputy city manager, "There's not much difference of opinion as to what's on the sidewalk, but which animal has deposited it."
The city's superintendent of animal control says the department is currently "trying to find the culprits" who are leaving their mark in the neighborhood.
Mejias has almost 50 signatures on a counter-petition that calls his business "an asset to the community." He said he has done everything possible to clean up after his dogs, whose owners pay $335 for two weeks of classes, including bus service. He said that although his six employes train the dogs throughout the neighborhood, they walk the dogs in only one area, the back of a parking lot of a vacant building.
"We pick up after the dogs here twice a day," said Mejias. "And we invite the neighbors to use it as well, and we will pick theirs up. The ordinance says we have to pick up after the dogs, and we do."
A big sign in Mejias' school says: "Please walk your dog before leaving home. If he relieves himself in the Old Town area, please clean up after him in compliance with city ordinances."
What those ordinances say is that it is unlawful for a dog owner to "knowingly or willfully allow his dog to urinate or defecate on public property, except curbs of streets and areas posted by the city manager as dog exercise areas," unless the owner immediately removes the material. According to Louis Sussholz, assistant city attorney, dog owners found guilty of violating this portion of the city code can be fined $25 for a first offense and up to $50 for a second.
"My office looks out on the area they walk their dogs in, and I see them picking it up faithfully," said Alexandria Health Director Anne Bucur, who gave the city manager's office a favorable report on the school last month, in response to the petition. "They wanted to know if I had any concerns in terms of public health," she said. Bucur said her staff inspected the streets and found them "well policed." They also checked the number of rodents in the area, she said, and found the population had not increased.
Gail Snider, superintendent of animal control in Alexandria, said she had not received a citizen complaint about the school in 18 months. In a memo to the city manager, she indicated "that Carlos serves as a good role model because passers-by can actually see the animals being walked on a leash . . . and he has free-of-charge worked with some of our animals to help get them in shape. He is a good citizen."
Corrinne Salahi, director of the Montessori School of Alexandria, which is just around the corner from the dog school, said, "We have never had any problem with the school. They always clean the street."
But some neighbors disagree. They say in their petition that the school is "unsightly, noisy, unsanitary and revolting."
"The owner claims that he cleans up feces twice a day, but that leaves offensive matter lying about for hours and, of course, the liquid part is never cleaned up," says the petition. ". . .We hold that this business should train its dogs on its own property, not lower the standards of an otherwise nice residential area."
One woman who signed the petition, Elizabeth Moore, who lives a few blocks from the school, described it as a nuisance. "It would be nice if they moved somewhere else," she said.
The area around The Olde Towne School for Dogs is a mixture of well-maintained, expensive townhouses, public housing and city offices such as the health and police departments. The school is within barking distance of two historic homes associated with Robert E. Lee: the Lee Fendall House and Lee's Boyhood Home. Though the signatures of the directors of both establishments appear on the petition, neither they nor anyone else at the homes would comment on the issue.
In fact, few of the 51 petition signers would talk about their objections to the school, and several of them said they were not as upset about it as the petition language indicated.
"I am not adamantly opposed to the school," said Lavinia Wade Lanyon, who lives a few houses away. "And I have not had any trouble with noise or mess, but I had a divided feeling. And when a nice young person asked me to sign, I felt that I had to consider the good for more than one person."
According to the deputy city manager, it's not unusual for people to sign a petition without being firmly committed to what it says. The city manager's and mayor's offices often receive petitions bearing five to 5,000 signatures, said Rush.
"Usually, the signatures are trying to show the council or the manager the level of interest in the particular issue," he said, adding that his office must respond to each petition, no matter how small.
What is unusual in this case, Rush says, is that he's still looking for a spokesman for the petitioners. After his office requested and received reports from the health department and animal shelter giving the school a favorable review, Rush says, he is now trying to determine "what the city can and can't do" in such a situation, since the school is not required to have a special use permit and has only a standard business license.
"I've been in this business for 25 years," said Rush, who is attempting to organize a neighborhood meeting if he can find a spokesman for the dog school's opponents, "and often the most difficult kind of situation that people in government get involved in are these types of disputes--not only about dogs, but things like fences, or people doing repairs on their automobiles or nasty kids. This type of thing is very difficult to legislate on."